Mitt Romney Holds Primary Night Gathering

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For six years, reporters and commentators have told the American public that evangelicals don’t want to vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon. But now that Romney has become the presumptive Republican nominee, that narrative has evaporated, replaced by a new one: evangelicals will embrace Romney after all. Politics appear to trump theology. Evangelicals may not think Romney’s a Christian, but at least he’s not Obama.

This new media narrative rests on a widespread misunderstanding. Romney’s Mormonism was always a problem for evangelical voters. But it was not his biggest evangelical problem—certainly not in 2012, and possibly not even during the 2008 primaries. Although he stumbled seriously coming out of the gate, Romney effectively learned to manage evangelicals’ religious misgivings about his candidacy starting as early as his December 2007 speech, “Faith in America.” That speech marked an important turning point in Romney’s relationship with evangelical voters. Afterwards, Romney’s most pressing evangelical problem was not his religion. Instead, it was his struggle to convince evangelicals he was a reliable social conservative.

When Romney began his presidential run in 2007, he seemed to think that he needed to convince evangelical voters he was a Christian. He spoke of Jesus as his “personal savior,” an expression more characteristically evangelical than Mormon. He professed his faith in the Bible as “the word of God” without mentioning other Mormon scriptures.

This strategy was deeply misguided. For one thing, most evangelicals did not oppose a Mormon president. Vocal hard-liners did, notably Texas pastor Robert Jeffress. He and Romney’s outspoken evangelical critics saw right through the Mormons-as-Christians spin. But polls conducted during both the 2008 and 2012 elections placed a minority of evangelicals in the “won’t vote for a Mormon” camp. Most evangelicals were open to a Mormon candidate—if they were assured that supporting a Mormon politician did not mean accepting Mormon theology as authentically Christian. For these evangelicals, Romney’s message of “I’m Christian, just like you” backfired: it blurred religious boundaries that evangelicals needed to keep bright.

Evangelicals weighed in on Romney’s errant strategy. In 2007, the dean of Bob Jones University, Robert Taylor, told Salon that he was prepared to endorse Romney for “his values.” But, he cautioned, if Romney used his campaign to promote Mormonism as a legitimate Christian denomination, “that would make it very different.” In October of 2007, Bloomberg News quoted two sympathetic evangelical politicos, Congressional Representative Bob Inglis and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, who warned Romney that if he wanted to avoid alienating evangelical voters, he needed to stop passing Mormonism off as equivalent to evangelical Christianity. “When he goes around and says Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior, he ticks off at least half the evangelicals,” Land observed. “He’s picking a fight he’s going to lose.”

Romney appeared to have gotten the message by December of 2007, when he delivered his “Faith in America” speech from the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas. That speech transmitted three points crucial for winning support from conservative evangelicals who were open to backing a Mormon. First, Romney was a social conservative who deplored secularism in public life. Second, while he considered himself a Christian, he acknowledged that his “church’s beliefs about Christ” differ “from those of other faiths.” Third, notwithstanding their theological differences, people of different faiths could work together around common values.

On these points, Romney echoed rhetoric that had characterized interfaith collaborations on the Religious Right since the 1990s. Most importantly for managing evangelical scruples, the speech signaled that Romney wouldn’t try to blur theological differences, a crucial assurance for evangelicals. Prominent conservative Christians responded warmly to the speech. Richard Land told reporters that this was the kind of speech he had been encouraging Romney to give. Evangelical radio host Hugh Hewitt called the speech “simply magnificent.” And Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw, known as an advocate of interreligious bridge-building without theological compromise, enthused that Romney’s speech “ought to be studied for its wisdom on … religious pluralism.”

The speech was a symbolic turning point in Romney’s relationship with evangelicals because it assured the majority who were open to voting for a Mormon that they could entertain his candidacy without fear of theological compromise. Once that assurance was in place, religion ceased to be Romney’s biggest evangelical problem.

This change finally registered on the media’s radar in 2012, as new quantitative studies undercut the narrative that “evangelicals won’t vote for a Mormon.” In January, Vanderbilt researcher John Geer predicted that conservative evangelicals’ biases against Mormonism would not keep them from supporting Romney over Obama. In March, following Romney’s losses to Rick Santorum in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries, Michael Tesler analyzed polls conducted by YouGov and concluded that evangelical opposition to Romney was “rooted in perceptions that he is not sufficiently conservative on social issues, rather than in aversion to his religious faith.” In May, the Brookings Institution released a study by Matthew Chingos and Michael Henderson, which found that information about Romney’s religion had little effect on evangelical voters’ likelihood to support him. “Concerns over Mitt Romney’s ‘religion problem,’” Chingos and Henderson concluded, “have been overblown.”

Surprising as these conclusions may have been for some observers, they were consistent with the views expressed by evangelical leaders who met in January to endorse Santorum for the Republican nomination. The group’s media spokesman insisted that they had not passed Romney over because of his religion. Mormonism, he said, “was not even discussed.” The evangelical right found Santorum more appealing than Romney because Santorum had a stronger record advocating for social issues—notably abortion, on which Romney had espoused moderate stances during his time in Massachusetts.

Had Santorum not withdrawn from the race, Romney would probably have continued to lag behind in appealing to evangelical “values voters”—not because of his Mormonism, but because of his shaky conservative credentials. Moving into the general election, conservative evangelicals will no doubt keep pressuring Romney to stand farther to the right than he might prefer.

The moral of this story is not that evangelicals are sacrificing their doctrinal objections to Mormonism for political expediency. Romney’s Mormonism per se was never an issue for most evangelicals. A majority were always open to voting for him—if he didn’t insist Mormonism was Christian, and if they judged him sufficiently conservative. By assigning disproportionate weight to the minority of evangelicals in the “Don’t vote for a Mormon!” camp, commentators missed an important shift: by 2012, if not earlier, doubts about Romney’s conservatism replaced concern about blurred theological differences as his greatest evangelical liability. That’s not because politics trumped theology; it’s because Romney learned to respect evangelicals’ theological boundaries.

It remains to be seen whether a minority of evangelical purists might sit out this election rather than vote for a Mormon (although former hard-liner Robert Jeffress has already softened his stance). As in the 2007 “faith speech,” Romney has continued in 2012 to effectively address evangelicals’ concerns about theological compromise. In May, he delivered the commencement address at Liberty University where he managed to extol conservative Christian values without ever explicitly identifying himself as Christian. Afterwards, the provost of Houston Baptist University commended Romney for “not pretend[ing] to agree with the theology of the Liberty University audience.” Romney must continue to walk that line to keep evangelicals’ anxieties about religion safely neutralized. He has enough to do already, handling their doubts about his politics.

John-Charles Duffy teaches courses in American religion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.